Have you visited the intriguing town of Arles in the Bouches-du-Rhône Departement? There’s so much waiting for you. This is merely un petit gout … a delicious wee taste!
Roman monuments and ruins
No wonder Arles is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site! Evidence of the importance of this area during Roman times is found throughout the town and not isolated in one small setting. Rather than a few remnants of crumbling ruins, there are impressive sites that have been extensively restored and play a vital role in the life of the community today.
In particular, the 2000-year-old amphitheater, Les Arènes, continues to be used for colorful festivals (férias) featuring the Camargue bulls, horses and costumed locals as well as for concerts and bullfights.
Adjacent to that is the antique theater, less intact but still a dramatic setting for live theatre, concerts and film presentations.
The massive public baths, built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century A.D., bear witness to the original status of the town. The engineering expertise of the Romans is apparent in the still visible original mechanisms.
Throughout the town, columns and other vestiges of antiquity can be found, along with portions of the original walls and gates. At the edge of town, Les Alyscamps is a large Roman necropolis that was the burying grounds of Arles for 1500 years. Looted during the Renaissance, it retains a mystical and spiritual ambiance and is part of the UNESCO Heritage Site.
The Musée Départemental d’Arles Antique, is situated near the site of the original Roman Circus, and is known locally as le Musée bleu. It has a most impressive architectural display of life in Arles and surroundings through the centuries. Two highlights are a marble bust of Julius Caesar, and a breath-taking, salvaged Roman cargo boat. Both were perfectly protected in the sludge of the Rhône for over two thousand years. The video of how this treasured boat was recovered and preserved is not to be missed.
The spirit of Vincent Van Gogh lives in Arles. Some may find this too much of a commercially touristic focus but, setting that aside, his time there is recorded in a way his admirers can immerse themselves. From February, 1888, to May, 1889, he lived here and achieved his most prolific artistic period, over 300 paintings and 1000 drawings. It was here that he discovered the magic of the light of Provence that inspired the vibrant swirls and brightness of much of his work during his last years. He also was consumed by his demons at times and his erratic behaviour often drew the ire of the townsfolk in Arles.
Sit on the terrace of Le Café Le Nuit and enjoy a drink or meal where Vincent himself would have passed some time. The building has been painted to recreate some of his work.
Follow his footsteps around town, guided by a walking tour that is accompanied by easels showing prints of Van Gogh’s work in the places he painted them.
The simple but impressive Fondation Vincent Van Gogh was inaugurated in April 2014, and is a must to visit for its extensive study of the artist’s work and his impact on art through the years. Unless a special exhibit is scheduled, none of Vincent’s original work will be found here.
Le Marché d’Arles
Wednesday and Saturday are when the outdoor market comes to town. This is one of the biggest markets in Provence, slightly larger on Saturdays (450 stalls). Be sure to come hungry! A feast for all the senses is offered. Specialities of the region are featured, including saucissons d’Arles along with fish, rice and bull meat from the Camargue.
Colorful stalls … and equally colorful vendors … offer everything from food to clothing to assorted bric à brac. Arrive early if you want to find a parking spot. Stalls open at 8 a.m. and everything is usually closed up by 1 p.m. On the first Wednesday of every month, the Foire à la brocante (Antique Market) takes over.
Arles is referred to as the Gateway to the Camargue, a unique landscape situated to the south on the Rhône delta. Famous for its flamingos, salt flats, semi-wild white horses, black bulls and French cowboys called gardiens, the area is often called the wild west of France. Visit a traditional manade (ranch) to be fascinated by the interaction between the horses and bulls, guided by the skilled riding of the gardiens.
In the UNESCO-designated Pont du Gau ornithological park, thousands of birds flourish in the wetlands, including up to 40,000 flamingos when they return each year to breed in the mudflats. This truly is a sight to see.
The Camargue is not so much beautiful, as it is unique. Marshy and scrubby to a certain extent, with large inland salt lakes. Rice has been a crop there since the Middle Ages and the Camargue red rice is popular. World-famous fleur de sel is harvested in the colorful salt flats over which the sun sets in spectacular performances. The famous dune-filled beaches along the Mediterranean stretch as far as the eye can see.
The ancient walled town of Aigues-Mortes, from which Crusaders once set sail, is not to be missed. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is proud of its colorful gypsy history, including the annual Roma pilgrimage. Along with the 17 km beach at Le Grau du Roi, the area offers exceptional opportunities for sailing and windsurfing.
The Camargue has a cuisine of its own, much of it based on the rich bull meat that is featured in the Gardiane au taureau, a slow-cooked stew. Tellinas, small shellfish that thrive in the sands of the Camargue, are enjoyed with persillade (chopped parsley and garlic) or à la marinière. Sable de Camargue wines are produced in vineyards along the Mediterranean coast of the area.
Explore the Camargue by horseback, cycling or sail the canals … with a good supply of mosquito repellant. Their size is legendary!
It’s often said that Arles is to photography as Cannes is to film. Since 1970, the first week of July has marked the opening of the internationally renowned Rencontres d’Arles. The largest annual gathering of fine art photographers in the world, exhibitions are set up in studios and historic architecture throughout the town. The festival runs until the third week in September.
As well as exhibiting the work of masters or showcasing new talent, it is generally considered to offer the finest work, often never seen before, as well as outstanding talks, panels and salons. It truly is a celebration of the art.
Building on this already established reputation in the arts, the new LUMA Foundation is moving closer to opening the LUMA Arles Arts Campus. On a derelict 27-acre industrial area that was once a repair yard for trains, employing one thousand artisans, a new cultural arts dream is evolving. A Frank Gehry tower of rippling stainless steel and stone will be the landmark building.
The first postgraduate college for photography, founded in the 1980’s, Ecole National de la Photography, will relocate here as will a major French publishing house and other music and dance partners. The vision is for a blend of collaborative cross-disciplinary arts, due for completion in 2018.
Another good reason to put Arles on your travel list!
Canadian author Patricia Sands writes award-winning women’s fiction. Drawing Lessons, her fifth novel, is set in Arles and the Camargue. It was released by Lake Union Publishing on October 1, 2017. Connect with her at www.patriciasandsauthor.com